The once-elegant replica of the White House, built by an oil baron who reputedly instructed his architect simply to copy the back side of a $20 bill, has been sold after eight long years on Houston's booming real estate market.
A real estate agent who claims to have handled the deal said the new owner swore him to secrecy as to his identity and the sale price. But within hours of the closing recently, locals were describing him as a French count with business interests in Texas, probably including petroleum.
And they were guessing that the price was beneath the $975,000 the realtor had been asking, since "the Sterling Mansion," as everyone here calls it, will require considerable restoration if it is ever to approach the reported $1.4-million showplace that Ross Sterling created in the late 1920s shortly before he was elected governor.
Sterling's "Texas White House" is near a defunct settlement originally named New Washington but long known as Morgan's Point, for its developer, plantation owner James Morgan. A ridged spit of land overlooking the busy Houston Ship Channel's entrance into Galveston Bay, Morgan's Point now has only about 200 residents.
Its most celebrated inhabitant is a long-dead mulatto slave of Morgan's, known in song only as "The Yellow Rose of Texas." Legend has it that the Anglo Texans won their nearby revolutionary battle with Mexico because the Mexican president and general, Santa Ana, was directed from his revolutionary activities by the presence of the yellow-skinned beauty, Emily Morgan.
That's what her master later claimed, but any other facts about Emily Morgan's life remain as mysterious as the Sterling Mansion's new owner would apparently like to be.
Laura McCulley, the wife of the Morgan's Point mayor and next-door neighbor to the Sterling Mansion, said she had unexpectedly chatted with the new owners recently when she telephoned one of the schoolteachers who has been living in the mansion rent-free in exchange for watching its security.
"I'm sorry, but I'm not at liberty to give you the man's name," she said.
She recalled, however, that, in his "French accent," he mentioned the name of a landscape architect. indicating his interest in sprucing up the weathered, beige-painted, three-story stone structure.
Don Peterson, whose local real estate agency was involved in the sale, will say only that the purchaser plans to keep his chief residence abroad, but will make the Morgan's Point White House suitable for habitation.
Sterling, who was elected to a two-year term as governor in 1931 and defeated for reelection in 1933, was a founder and president of Humble Oil, the Texas arm of Standard Oil of New Jersy. Of importance to him was the mansion-roof view of Humble's giant refinery -- now run by Exxon -- just across the ship channel from Morgan's Point.
Sterling's formal stone mansion, with its replica of the South Portico looking out across a natural beachfront onto the bay, seems out of character with the resolutely informal frame strutures, often with big porches and lattice work, that other wealthy Texans have built fore years on Morgan's Point for weekend or year-round use.
While realtor Peterson says the Sterling Mansion is smaller than the one at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., the replica at 515 Bayridge Rd. is not without impressive details -- nine double bedrooms and 15 bathrooms, a mahogany library, a ballroom and other areas to accomodate as many as 300 guests. It also has a canning room in which Mrs. Sterling preserved produce from their farm across the road. Quarters for servants and guests were on the farm property. Sterling also had architect Alfred C. Finn sketch main-house wings for a shooting gallery and a bowling alley, though they were never built. w
Oddly, perhaps, the Sterlings are not remembered locally for much entertaining beyond their family circle. Old-timer Rober Kline recalled Sterling selling the estate's home canned goods and produce from a rowboat. In his will, Sterling, who died in 1949, gave the whole place to the Optimist Club of Houston as a residence for homeless boys, Boys' Harbor. The big rooms, replete with maple woodwork and Tiffany lamps, were painted and dormitory-partitioned.
But, according to Peterson, after several years the Texas legislature decreed that such institutions must separate children by age groups in housing. dBoy's Harbor, with as many as 86 residents, was rebuilt on the farm land across the road, and in 1961 it sold the rundown mansion to Houston Banker Paul Barkley. The price, $92,000, reflected the condition of its fall from grace.
An outgoing fellow who enjoys telling stories about such friends as Howard Hughes, Barkley wanted the place for grand entertaining. But, Peterson says, restoring the big house "became more than Paul was willing to take care of," although Barkley had hosted such grand affairs there as a "Back to Earth" party for astronauts.
Peterson and others have offered the Texas White House for sale since 1972, he says, beginning at $460,000, then $600,000 and recently $975,000.
He says brochures on the house were mailed to high-priced real estate brokers in the United States and abroad. It reportedly was listed by Sotheby Parke-Bernet in New York and advertised in the Wall St. Journal.
Peterson would make no comment on his commission, except to say that it is being split between his firm and John Daugherty Realtors, the Houston associate of Sotheby Parke-Bernet International Realty.
At one point a group sought to turn the estate into a "fat farm" for wealthy women. Morgan's Point residents were no more pleased by that than they had been by Barkely's plans for a yacht club.
City Secretary Josephine Wakefield, who was born in Morgan's Point, as her mother was 74 years ago, says one recent Texas governor toyed with the idea of the state purchasing the estate as a gubernatorial retreat, but that would not have produced tax revenue for what Wakefield proudly calls "the richest little city in Texas." In fact, she says, Barkley's heirs -- he died in 1978 -- have been treated generously on the Morgan's Point tax rolls because Sterling's White House in decline was viewed locally as a "white elephant."
"All the realtors here have tried their hand at selling it for many, many years," said one local real estate agent, who had only heard in recent weeks that a closing was "close."
"Whoever it is," she added, "I think we're all glad if it means someone will finally take care of it. If you get in your boat and see from the water, its quite spectacular."